September 27, 2018
The force behind Liza Michelle Jewelry knows that the business side of art is vital to success.
Keep on learning. Hire good help. Balance business tasks with creative work as you’re planning your schedule. These themes emerged recently when we asked a handful of CIA’s many successful alumni what it takes to thrive as a self-employed artist. Liza Rifkin ’10 was one of them.
Tell us a little about your studio and work.
I am the owner and lead designer of Liza Michelle Jewelry, a handmade fine jewelry brand with a studio in the Ohio City neighborhood. I work with ethically sourced materials and sustainable practices to create jewelry inspired by the act of taking notice. Each collection is influenced by taking a closer look at the natural world. I use actual natural objects, as well as textures, shapes, and motifs from nature to design each piece. I love celebrating the little moments and details you experience when interacting with the environment. I also work quite a bit with clients to create custom pieces that include engagement and wedding rings, commemorative and anniversary pieces, and everything in between. I create the work in a beautiful, sunny little storefront in Ohio City. I’ve been there almost five years and in that time, I’ve carved out space for creating as well as a gallery and space to meet with clients. I am committed to creating future heirlooms that my clients and customers can feel good about.
Is this what the college version of you expected to be doing?
I definitely knew I would be self-employed after graduation, but I don’t think I had this business specifically in mind. In college I made very conceptual, not very retail oriented work. I had planned to continue making conceptual jewelry and even did so after graduation, creating a body of work while Artist-in-Residence in the Jewelry/Metals department here at CIA. However, I don’t think I had a very realistic idea of how I was going to make money in a sustainable way that would also make me happy. I figured I’d work for studio jewelers while doing my own work on the side. I did that for a few years post-graduation, but the burnout and dissatisfaction I found in working and creating on someone else’s terms allowed me to imagine the business I have now. I was laid off in 2013 and as I became an entrepreneur mostly out of necessity, I found a passion for it.
What’s your typical day like?
I found out early on that routine is really important! I wake up every day at 6:30, and take a couple hours for myself to start the day. I’m usually in the studio by 8:30 or 9 and spend the first hour or so handling emails, doing any accounting work, and planning out my schedule for the day. Every day can be different depending on the custom projects I have, client meetings, restocks and orders, and managing my second business, LMJ Foundry - a boutique casting company that manufactures for other jewelers and makers. Some days are computer heavy, working on editing product photos, corresponding with clients to discuss or finalize designs, and other business tasks like marketing and accounting. I usually try and plan at least one day a week of complete creativity, allowing myself to sit down and create something from start to finish that has no business purpose- not a commission or an item from my collection. This allows me to still be free a bit and experiment with ideas which almost always influences the business. Twice a week my studio assistant is in to help run the casting/manufacturing business while I focus on my design work.
Do you think “hustle,” or salesmanship, is an important ingredient for your business?
Absolutely. If I didn’t know how to sell my work there’d be no business! I think there’s a big misconception that as an artist our job is purely to create and the opportunities and sales will follow organically. I make the business side of what I do a part of my artistic practice as well, cultivating good habits and hiring in professionals to help when I am doing something outside my expertise. It’s a hard thing to balance as an artist, running a business. You have to be okay with the fact that some days you don’t get to create or make something, that some days you have to work at the art of running a successful business. I invested in a business education from the various nonprofits and business resources in Cleveland, of which there are many, to better understand where I could improve my salesmanship and what areas of the business I was neglecting. Just as I do as a jeweler, as a business owner I am always seeking more knowledge and understanding to enable myself to work smarter, not harder.
How much attention to you give to the business of art?
This is a huge aspect of my day-to-day operations. As I mentioned earlier, I have invested a lot of time and effort in educating myself further in how to run a business, as well as honing my skills as a jeweler. There’s not a day that goes by that I am not handling some aspect of running the business, as well as making work.
However, something that I learned with time was to hire in professionals to handle the aspects of the business I don’t have the time, desire, or expertise to do. I currently work with an accountant, photographer, PR firm and graphic designer to make sure that each of those areas of my business run smoothly while I handle the things I am uniquely suited to do.
Any earned wisdom for artists and designers who will be either self-employed or want to own their own business?
The biggest thing to consider before starting your own business is having a clear understanding of what it takes to run one that’s successful.
There’s this romantic idea that as a jewelry company owner I get to sit around all day dreaming up jewelry designs and executing them. That’s a small part of the whole. Just like any job, there will be parts of it you don’t love to do, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary. You also have to be really self-driven and motivated. There’s no boss or manager behind you telling you what to do and how to do it. You have to have the fortitude to direct the business and day to day operations to achieve your objective.
Also, don’t be afraid to pivot. Your original idea or way of doing something may not work out, or make you happy. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means you need to evolve and pivot your point of view of what a sustainable business looks like. Seek out resources to educate and help yourself start and run the business. There are a ton of free and inexpensive programs where you can get practical business training and advice that will be invaluable to you. It will also help you to network and open doors you may not have had access to before. This life is so worth it if you have the passion and drive to make it a reality.